The 15 Best New Rifles of 2018, Tested
Our team spent a week shooting the latest and greatest bolt action rifles on the market
This year, rifle and shotgun makers delivered an impressive field of new guns. The interest in precision rifles capable of fine, long-range accuracy continues. Some are meant for competition and general range shooting, others for hunting. As a group, these rifles are getting better, and as a result, we had the most accurate field of firearms we’ve ever tested at Outdoor Life. Five-shot accuracy averaging .75 inch or better is now the new standard of excellency for good factory rifles shooting factory ammo. Note I said “averaging,” which is quite different from a random tight group or two.
One drawback of precision rifles meant for hunting is excessive weight, so we’re seeing more carbon-fiber components cropping up from companies like Proof Research, Christensen Arms, Seekins Precision, Nosler, and Browning.
Curiously, the budget-oriented rifles this year come from Europe. One is a Mauser made in Germany and the other is the Franchi Momentum, which is the Italian company’s first bolt-action.
The field of new shotguns, as usual, is small but strong. We have attractive over/unders for birds and clays, and a semi-auto from Beretta that’s a heck of a value. The big news, though, is the arrival of box-magazine-fed pump guns. It is an interesting development that has some benefits, but it is too early to say whether they will supplant our traditional pumps.
Editor’s Choice: Seekins Precision Havak Pro Hunter
|Excellent||Excellent||Excellent||Very Good||Very Good||Excellent||Excellent||Very Good||Very Good|
The Havak Pro Hunter is a great example of the modern bolt-action hunting rifle. It is heavily influenced by the rise in popularity of long-range competition—no surprise, since Glenn Seekins, the owner and founder of the company, is an avid competitive shooter himself. He’s also a die-hard hunter who stalks the big country around Lewiston, Idaho, where Seekins Precision is based.
The Havak Pro Hunter is among the first production rifles in 6.5 PRC, which Hornady is now loading as a factory round. The rifle and cartridge are a great match. The 5-shot groups with the two loads Hornady is offering averaged .75 inch, with a couple of sub-.5 MOA groups.
We loved how the rifle handled during our battery of field tests. The action cocks and cycles smoothly, and the 2-pound, 5-ounce trigger has a perfect, crisp break.
The broad fore-end of the stock fills the hand well, and the flush-mounted cups are more convenient attachment points for a sling than traditional studs. We like the
vertical grip and the ambidextrous geometry of the stock as well, though the grip itself is a bit fatter than necessary.The deep spiral fluting on the barrel makes a strong visual impression, and we appreciated the craftsmanship and looks of the bolt, bolt knob, and receiver too.
The real beauty of this rifle is how well it performs, however. It is designed to be carried through rough country and not only survive extreme conditions but also deliver a perfect shot when the moment arrives. And at this price, it is an amazing value and this year’s Editor’s Choice.
Great Buy: Mauser M18
|Very Good||Excellent||Good||Good||Very Good||Very Good||Good||Very Good||Excellent|
Will miracles never cease? I didn’t think I’d live to see the day when I could purchase a new Mauser that didn’t require taking out a second mortgage. And yet here we are. It is actually made in Germany—and yet carries a very attainable $699 price tag.
The price is a function of the rifle’s simplicity. But that simplicity is also what makes the gun so appealing. It checks all the boxes a good hunting rifle needs to and it avoids unnecessary embellishment.
The rifle has a three-lug bolt that glides back and forth smoothly with minimal wiggle and no binding. The slick action shined during the field drills—the test team was able to run the gun quickly from the shoulder while maintaining accurate fire.
The bolt handle has a generous round knob, and the 3.25-pound trigger is right in the sweet spot for a hunting rifle.
A button recessed into the stock releases the box magazine, which loads easily and sits flush with the stock.
The synthetic stock has a matte finish and soft, textured inserts on the fore-end and grip. It’s cut in the American Classic style, and has an elegant air despite its economical construction.
Mauser put a three-position safety on the rifle that keeps the bolt locked down when in the safe position.
The rifle delivered excellent accuracy too, with a 5-shot-group average of .877 inch, including a .673-inch group with Federal’s 165-grain Nosler AccuBond. Performance like that in a rifle that handles well would be a good value in a $1,200 rifle. For a $699 gun, it’s outstanding.
Bergara Premier Approach
|Good||Excellent||Very Good||Good||Very Good||Very Good||Good||Fair||Good|
Off the bags, this was one of the stars of the test. It turned in 5-shot groups that averaged just over .75 inch. The rifle was very well-mannered and cycled smoothly at the bench. The stock’s broad fore-end provided stability, and the raised cheekpiece centered the shooter’s eye behind the scope. The heavy barrel and consistent 2-pound, 14-ounce trigger helped too. But during the field-shooting portion of the test, we found the rifle to be sluggish and awkwardly balanced. It also had issues feeding single cartridges tossed into the breech. This left us with some mixed feelings in light of its nearly $2,000 price tag.
Browning X-Bolt Pro Long Range
|Good||Excellent||Good||Good||Very Good||Very Good||Good||Very Good||Good|
We can’t lie. The gaudy finish on this X-Bolt didn’t appeal to anyone on the test team. This much gold wouldn’t look good on Jay-Z, and it isn’t doing this rifle any favors either. That said, looks aren’t everything. The rifle functions beautifully. It loads easily, cycles flawlessly, and has a pretty good trigger on it. The massive 26-inch barrel, topped with a radial muzzle brake, makes this rifle freakishly long and puts more weight forward than is ideal for balanced handling—and without much gain in velocity (25 to 75 fps) compared to 22-inch barrels shooting the same loads. Its sub-.75 MOA accuracy was excellent.
Christensen Arms MPR
|Good||Excellent||Very Good||Very Good||Very Good||Very Good||Good||Fair||Very Good|
In a field of exceptionally accurate rifles, one had to lead the pack, and this Christensen Arms rifle was it. It shot every 6.5 Creedmoor factory load well, and when we tallied the results, its average 5-shot group was .557 inch, with loads from Norma, Barnes, and Hornady in the .4s.
This sleek black rifle sports lots of carbon fiber and has a sexy, sci-fi look that the team really liked. The folding stock is a great touch, as is the ultra-crisp DiamondTech trigger. Some testers found the stock a bit too slick during some of the field drills, and inconsistent ejection cost the rifle a few points.
This is the first bolt-action rifle from Franchi, and the folks who designed it added some thoughtful touches. It comes with a threaded barrel and has smartly designed integral sling attachments, good handholds and texturing on the stock, and a bit more aesthetic flair than most rifles at this price. Accuracy was adequate—1.338-inch-group average. We found that the stock geometry beat us up a bit during our shooting drills, so there’s room for improvement there. The three-lug action gives the rifle a short bolt throw, but that advantage was offset somewhat by the effort it takes to cock the rifle from the shoulder.
Mossberg Precision Rifle
The true measure of a precision rifle is accuracy, and based on this standard, the new Mossberg Precision Rifle had a hard time distinguishing itself in a highly competitive field. It is a legitimately sub-MOA rifle, but its average 5-shot group size of .912 inch put it a step behind most of the competition. The adjustable Luth buttstock, integral Picatinny rail, and threaded barrel are all good features, but the magazine wiggled like a loose tooth in the receiver, and the bolt had an excessive amount of slop and play when we were running the gun. For the price, we expected a bit more polish and, well, precision.
Nosler M48 Long-Range Carbon
|Good||Excellent||Very Good||Very Good||Good||Good||Very Good||Good||Fair|
The M48 is one of the finest big-game rifle actions in existence. When it’s combined with a Proof Research carbon-fiber barrel and a Manner’s carbon-fiber stock, you end up with a formidable hunting rig. Group averages were at .76 inch, and with the 140-grain Nosler RDF load, the rifle was at .6 inch, so the rifle certainly lives up to its promise there. But it wasn’t a slam dunk. The action was stiff to run—probably a function of a too-heavy firing-pin spring—and the ejector didn’t toss empties with much authority. At almost three grand, a rifle should function perfectly, and with a bit more refinement, this Nosler might get there.
|Very Good||Excellent||Very Good||Excellent||Excellent||Excellent||Excellent||Very Good||Good|
In just about any other year, this gun would have taken top honors in the test. It is an exceptionally accurate rifle built on superb components—a Bighorn Arms action, Proof carbon-fiber barrel, and Proof stock—that work perfectly together. It turned in one group that measured a scant .181 inch, the best of the test. This rifle can also switch barrels to run other cartridges, thanks to the Savage-style barrel-nut system. But this is no bench queen. It has a lively balance and feel that helped it excel during our field tests too. This is an all-around hunting rifle with an aspirational price tag that is worth aspiring to.
|Good||Very Good||Good||Good||Good||Very Good||Good||Fair||Good|
The test team all agreed—if we could turn back the clock, this is the rifle we would have wanted to take on our first backyard safari for squirrels, rabbits, or tin cans. For a young shooter, it doesn’t get much cooler than this Ruger. The stock adjusts easily, it has a Picatinny rail on the receiver, the barrel is threaded, and all the controls are simple to manipulate. At 100 yards, it averaged 1.422-inch groups—pretty good for a .22. The cartridges didn’t always feed smoothly, but for the price, this is a heck of a gun, either for a young shooter or a person looking for a rimfire trainer that mimics larger chassis rifles.
Savage M10 Stealth
At nearly 12 pounds empty, this beast of a bolt gun is built to go long. The 6mm Creedmoor is one of the best cartridges out there for this, and the rifle delivered some fine groups off the bench, including some sub-.5 MOA groups with Hornady’s factory 108-grain ELD Match loads. This rifle is a viable contender for production-class precision-rifle competition and would make for a deadly long-range varmint or predator rig. The M-Lok-friendly stock makes the rifle easy to configure with accessories.
Savage M110 Storm
Savage’s new Accufit rifles come with a bag of inserts that can be used to change the stock’s length of pull and comb height for a custom fit. This is convenient and innovative, but shooters, being a notoriously lazy bunch, don’t typically take advantage of such accessories. The rifle’s accuracy was OK but nothing special, and not in keeping with Savage’s historical claim to affordable performance. So we were left with an $850 firearm that didn’t wow us given the other hunting rifles in that same price range.
|Very Good||Excellent||Very Good||Very Good||Very Good||Very Good||Good||Fair||Very Good|
Everything on this rifle says “quality”—from the fit and finish of the materials to the crisp 2-pound trigger to the easy-to-load magazine that has the size and feel of a standard centerfire box magazine. The accuracy of the rifle is equally impressive. At 100 yards, it averaged .827 inch. It would be deadly on ground squirrels and in rimfire-only precision-rifle events. The price tag on the rifle puts it out of reach for all but a select few, but those who can afford it won’t be disappointed in their investment.
Winchester M70 Coyote Light
|Good||Very Good||Good||Very Good||Good||Good||Good||Good||Good|
This rifle is a new look for Winchester. While threaded barrels are common, the Coyote Light is the first M70 to have that option. Even though the stock is beefy, the rifle weighs a manageable 7.75 pounds. Screw a suppressor onto it and you’ve got a very good walking predator rifle or long-range varminter. Average group size was right at an inch. The trigger was crisp, but at 4 pounds, 10 ounces, it could have been lighter. Given the price tags on some precision rifles with less polish, this M70 is a good value too.
Innovation: GA Precision 6.5 PRC
We don’t normally include custom rifles in Outdoor Life‘s annual gun test, but we made an exception this year. George Gardner, the head honcho at GA Precision, earned a spot in the field for his GA Precision because he’s been the driving force behind the introduction of the 6.5 PRC cartridge by Hornady. As it happened, this rifle tied with the Seekins for the best score in the evaluation.
A rifle that costs nearly five grand is not in the offing for most folks, but it is worth taking a look at what that kind of money gets you. In a word: perfection.
The rifle Gardner sent us is built on his two-lug Templar action, with a Bartlein barrel and a Manners stock. Even though the rifle is heavy, it handles like a lighter gun thanks to how balanced it is. Between the rifle’s heft and the super-effective muzzle brake, the recoil of the 6.5 PRC is tamed so the shooter can easily keep the target in the scope as the bullet speeds downrange. The rifle’s superior accuracy and the 6.5 PRC’s formidable downrange ballistics make this a lethal hunting rig at very long ranges. The average group size was .674 inch, with several between .4 and .5 inch.
Everything on the rifle functions just as it should, smoothly and intuitively, with no hesitations or rough spots. We were unable to induce any type of malfunction in the rifle during our torture test as well. The rifle is accurate, easy to shoot, and built to take a King Kong-size beating. And it can handle any non-dangerous game on Earth.
Read Next: The Best Rifles of 2017
Ammo in the Test
High-quality rifle cartridges delivered tight groups
The accuracy of our rifles and our expectations for the performance of new guns seem to increase every year. Gun builders have improved their game to the point that legitimately sub-MOA rifles, which used to be as common as unicorns, are now the norm. Any rifle that can’t hold 5 shots within an inch circle at 100 yards with at least one type of ammo, to say nothing of the infinitely less stringent 3-shot standard, won’t generate much enthusiasm.
The unsung heroes in this golden age of accuracy are the ammo makers. We are spoiled by the availability of quality ammunition that would have left previous generations of hunters and shooters with their mouths agape.
This is a key reason this year’s field of rifles was the most accurate we’ve seen. The tightest-shooting ammo of the test were the various 6.5 Creedmoor loads. No single ammunition company dominated the field. The rifles exhibited some individual preferences, but all of these loads—the 130-grain Norma HPBT, the 140-grain Barnes HPBT, the Remington 140-grain HPBT, the Nosler 140-grain RDF, and the Hornady 143-grain ELD-X and 147-grain ELD Match—turned in stellar results.
This year we added a Labradar to the test ($560). This portable Doppler radar unit captures bullet velocity at different points out to about 80 yards or so with small rifle bullets and yields a wealth of information.
Consistency is the key to accurate ammo, and the 6.5 PRC factory loads by Hornady had low extreme spreads (ES) in muzzle velocity—36 fps with the 147-grain ELD Match and 38 fps with the 143-grain ELD-X—and standard deviations (SD) of 11.1 and 13.4, respectively. This helped the GA Precision and Seekins Havak rocket to the top of the charts.
Regular hunting ammo did well too. Federal’s 165-grain AccuBond in .308 was the most accurate load in the Mauser M18 and accounted for several groups in the .6s to .8s, with a measured ES of 34 fps and SD of 11. And the AccuBond bullet, introduced in the early 2000s, is at the top of the list of premium hunting bullets in terms of accuracy and terminal ballistics.
Experimenting with a few different types of ammo will usually improve any rifle’s accuracy, whether we’re talking about a new gun or an old favorite that’s been passed down through the generations.
How We Test
How We Test
Our interest in these rifles and shotguns boils down to a question of practicality. How useful do we deem a firearm to be in light of its intended purpose and its potential applicability for other uses?
Our test is structured to get to that answer. With the rifles, we spend most of the first couple of days of our weeklong evaluation shooting them off the bench. This helps us gather baseline data on accuracy and allows us to make note of any significant issues with basic functions, like loading, feeding, action smoothness, extraction, ejection, and trigger pull. Our standard of multiple 5-shot groups in succession stresses the rifles and reveals which rifles can, literally, take the heat. Our accuracy scores are based on the average of the 10 best 5-shot groups measured, which is a fair representation of what a gun is capable of doing. While critical, this is only a small portion of the equation that goes into the grades you see presented in the charts.
Once away from the bench, we put the rifles through a series of drills to see how they’ll handle real-world hunting and shooting conditions. We ring a lot of steel at our home range in Bozeman, Mont., as we shoot the rifles offhand, kneeling, sitting, and prone, either unsupported or with field-expedient rests. We also try to induce malfunctions by awkwardly cycling the actions, attempting to load more rounds than the magazines are designed to hold, tossing single rounds into the chamber at different angles to see if they feed, and performing other nefarious drills.
With the shotguns, we spend nearly all of our time shooting clays—though our goal isn’t to run 25 straight on the skeet field. Instead, we handle the shotguns in various ways to test their balance, pointing characteristics, and ergonomics. We’ll shoot some clays with a high gun, but mostly we’re shooting from a low-ready position, with the clays coming at random intervals to more accurately represent the flight of wild birds.
Finally, we put a premium on both the versatility of these firearms and their value. We favor guns that can do more than one task, and we’re especially fond of guns that yield a lot of performance for the price.
Our top overall-scoring shotgun and rifle get the Editor’s Choice award, while the best value is deemed our Great Buy.
The Test Team
Our gang of trigger pullers consisted of four shooters this year. From left are Mark Copenhaver, a mule deer fanatic who lives in Helena, Montana; John B. Snow, the test team captain and shooting editor for both Outdoor Life and Field & Stream; Alex Robinson, Outdoor Life‘s executive editor based in Minnesota; and Dave Hurteau, executive editor for Field & Stream, who lives in Upstate New York.
Video by Natalie Krebs